Thursday 19 September 2013

Wednesday 4 September 2013

José Ramón Larraz, 1929-2013

A couple of kind folks have just pointed out to me that with the recently announced death of José Ramón Larraz, all of the main figures that Cathal and myself wrote about in Immoral Tales are now dead. Great! Thanks, guys… Although it took a few years, we finally got the last of the bastards.

But seriously, it does make you realise that we have reached - in that much abused phrase – “the end of an era”.

What exactly that era was we leave history to define. But I guess we can say that it was, in film making terms, a period when borders were crossed, rules questioned and moulds broken.

In many ways, José Ramón was one of the most traditional of the six film makers we covered. And yet his works have a timeless – or rather “out of time” – quality that sets them apart. The flared trousers and mullet haircuts might be firmly date stamped, but with most of them set in isolated, claustrophobic locations, ringed by empty fields and eerie woods, the modern world seems curiously absent from his films.

The best of them seem to take place in a kind of dream space, an inner landscape where familiar but oddly unreal characters meet, mate, part and perform in a  ritual that seems to suggest meaning, but never finally reveals its purpose. The awkward dialogue, the obscurely motivated actions, the languid pace, the shadow filled framing,  all create an ominous sense of unease, a feeling that anything could happen; but that when it does, it will be tragic and ultimately lead nowhere. Although often written off as a maker of cheap exploitation pics, Larraz is much closer to Samuel Beckett than to Derek Ford* in the way his films embrace or express the ultimate pointlessness of things, while at the same time underlining the fact that we will always keep on keeping on.

I first met him some time in the early 90s, when Cathal and myself went to see him at his home in Tunbridge Wells – “Royal Tunbridge Wells”, as he liked to remind us, with a twinkle in his eye. He was an iconoclast and an old leftie, but he was also a huge anglophile and loved the grand British traditions, or at least the idea of them. We’d driven down there with a UK producer who reckoned he could drum up enough funds to make a small exploitation movie, helmed by Larraz. In the end we talked about almost everything but that project.

We met again a few times over the years, had dinner together on his rare London visits, and I spoke to him on the phone; but the last time we met was at Sitges in 2009. I encountered Larraz walking the corridors of the Melia hotel, almost in a trance. We had a brief conversation and I was convinced he didn’t know who I was. Later he phoned to apologise, explaining that he had just received an award and had been thoroughly “zombified” by the experience. We got to talking about the script he had for Fascinatrix – the sequel to Vampyres.

In typical Larraz style it was not a sequel at all, but a film about a subject that deeply interested him – witchcraft, men’s fear of the power of women, the evils of organised religion. All classic Larraz themes and served up with a heavy dose of irony as well as dollops of sex and violence. It would have been a classic, and maybe in 1977 we could have raised the cash to make it; but in 2009? Not so easy…

What impressed me in discussing it with him was how alive the thing was in his mind. He had ingenious and thoroughly workable solutions to all the technical problems that we raised, ideas on how to cheat the couple of historical crowd scenes the script required, tricks to create the illusion of the forest of hanging witches that occurred at one point. I really do think he was the most technically adept of all the film makers we wrote about and had it in him to make a masterpiece or two. And yet, as he said himself – “If you want to make great films, important films, you have to spend time where the money is, not hang out with your friends and people you like. But I chose to spend my time with people I like.”

That can’t be a bad epitaph for anybody and it sums up the warm heart and humanity of the man. Let’s hope that the best of his work, those first six or seven films, will one day receive the quality releases they deserve.

* btw – No insult intended. I fully expect to have that comparison thoroughly challenged soon via an in-depth analysis of the mighty Ford oeuvre.